Ellen Goddard doesn’t have a crystal ball — but grocery and restaurant chains do and that’s going to drive change in the food sector and agriculture.
The name of their crystal ball is called Big Data. Companies are watching consumers like never before via sophisticated tracking software and monitoring of social media.
“Most grocery stores in the U.K. and the United States are way ahead of us in terms of using data for targeted promotions,” said Goddard, an agricultural economist and professor at the University of Alberta.
How far ahead?
Well, some American and British companies are sending email promotions to people’s cellphones as they walk into their stores. They also have mechanisms for gauging which products people look at the most. U.K. grocery giant Tesco has even partnered with the British Health Ministry to track people’s regular grocery purchases.
“If they thought the foods were unhealthy, they would send messages to that person offering sales on healthier food products, or send social media information to see if they could sway people to buy more in the fruit and vegetable aisle,” said Goddard.
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According to one survey, consumers in Europe are ready for the onslaught of technological information, and are expecting it to come to them via their portable technology. Technological programs that track physical activity and food purchases will make health information more personal.
“People don’t seem very concerned about this type of technology, even on the privacy aspect,” she said.
How it shakes out for Canadian farmers remains to be seen, but the mind meld between consumers and the companies that sell them food is definitely coming here, said Goddard, who figures Loblaws will be one of the first adopters.
And an existing trend — food safety and traceability — will deepen in all food sectors in the coming year, she said.
“I really think there is going to be an increasing concern because people are getting more sophisticated about the kind of information they want about food.”
Some companies have reacted to customer pressure and have closed their supply chains. Maple Leaf Foods, for example, has a very tight supply chain and knows where all its products come from. Loblaws is also moving in this direction.
“I think this will be a big thing in Canada and it will change the business,” said Goddard.
Sustainability — with a corresponding increase in monitoring of environmental and production practices — will also grow in importance.
“If the global roundtable (on sustainable beef) strategy is to be successful, it will be very successful when they put hard definitions on things for particular countries, and then they are evaluated by third parties,” she said. “We’re going to end up with a system like that for beef production.”
And what about the debate about genetically modified food? Is it finally going to get a rest?
Nope, said Goddard.
She points to a genetically modified potato, recently approved for use in the U.S. but not Canada, that reduces acrylamide when the potatoes are fried, cutting the carcinogenic potential of the food. Two days after the potato was released, McDonald’s announced it would not use them.
That quick response to a product with “an explicit and identified health attribute” is a sign the debate on GM foods is moving into new territory, she said.
“When a company is making a choice not to use it because it perceives public acceptance is very low for the product, somebody somewhere is going to point out that maybe they should be sending the signal that the technology is acceptable and they’re using it because it’s better for the health of their customers,” she said.
“I think this will open the GM debate up much more widely than it has in the past. Up until now, there hasn’t be a debate about health.
“The debate is now going to change.”